AECL on Arrow’s flightpath

Canada’s reputation for innovation and thousands of jobs are in jeopardy

Michael Ivanco Vice-President of the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates

The decision by the Conservative government to tie the sale of AECL to the budget (Bill C-9) will allow the federal cabinet to sell all or part of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), marking the last chapter in yet another Canadian high-tech wonder.

In a parliamentary committee tucked away from the lights and action of the House of Commons, MPs today are scheduled to spend a scant 90 minutes debating and then voting on giving the federal cabinet the right to dispose of Canada’s largest remaining Crown corporation as it sees fit. With it, 30,000 highly skilled jobs become at risk and Canada’s reputation for innovation takes a hit.

Despite the naysayers in the Harper government, AECL has made an extraordinary contribution to Canada’s scientific and technological communities.

AECL has allowed Canada entry into a very exclusive club. Nuclear energy production is confined to only a handful of countries and Canada can trace our involvement to the dawn of the nuclear age.

What makes Canada’s contribution unique is that we are the only country to exclusively use nuclear technology for the peaceful purposes of research, medicine and energy. We have developed a reputation as a respected leader in the industry.

Canada has become a world leader in nuclear medicine and research. The development and production of medical isotopes, gamma technology and use of cobalt-60 have improved lives and made a positive contribution to society.

In terms of energy production, Candu reactors currently provide Ontario with more than 50 per cent of its energy needs and have been rated as one of the most reliable reactor types in the world. Foreign countries, including China, South Korea and India, have chosen Candu reactors. With many countries looking for a clean form of energy, nuclear is experiencing significant opportunities for growth.

Economically, the nuclear industry employs more than 70,000 Canadians, many with advanced degrees. Spread out over hundreds of companies, they provide goods and services that require a high level of skills and abilities.

This is not something that can easily be outsourced to lower cost jurisdictions. Annually, the nuclear industry contributes over $6 billion to the Canadian economy, including more than $1 billion in exports.

While there have been some justifiable criticisms of the management of AECL, the reality is that there are thousands of employees who have dedicated themselves to providing solutions to some of the most challenging issues in nuclear power.

Critics like to point out cost overruns as a reason for dumping AECL. They conveniently ignore the situation at other nuclear companies, such as the French government-backed AREVA, which has had its share of recent setbacks and delays.

Countries buying nuclear reactors want to know that the company will be around for the long run. They also want to know that the company will have the resources necessary to keep the plants running and up-to-date.

It is for that reason that most of the companies building nuclear reactors are government-backed or are nuclear divisions of multinational companies, such as GE or Westinghouse Toshiba. A privatized AECL would not be able to compete in such an environment.

Successive governments have never properly understood the real value of AECL to Canada and Canadians, and through ignorance or indifference allowed it to whither to its current state. A revitalized AECL with private sector management and government support can get back on the fast track to success.

Not since the Avro Arrow has Canada seen an advanced technology and this many jobs at risk. It is somewhat ironic that the demise of both the Arrow and AECL took place under Conservative administrations.

Canadians deserve to have a proper debate on the future of AECL and not allow it to die in committee.